Kindred spirit: New York photographer enchanted by Vietnam's mediums

Tewfic El-Sawy learned about the folk religion and its ritual by chance three years ago. He hasn't stopped coming back.

New York-based photographer Tewfic El-Sawy is too humble to claim that he helped made Vietnam's Mother Goddesses worship tradition better known worldwide. But in a way he did.

El-Sawy, who specializes in documenting endangered cultures and traditional life in Asia, Latin America and Africa, spent two years in Vietnam on the once-banned ritual of hau dong and in 2016 published a photo book on the tradition. He believes it's the first in-depth book about hau dong by a non-Vietnamese author.

As if mastermided by fate, the artist was wandering around a small town named Bac Ha, around 300 kilometers from Hanoi, in 2014.

“I heard music coming from a small temple," he recalled. " I was very surprised to see a medium, musicians and a large group of devotees. I thought it was some kind of Vietnamese Buddhism.”

El-Sawy was enchanted and even today he still rejoices at the thought of taking pictures at the incarnation ceremonies.

“I owe a lot to Vietnam and its people,” the photographer told VnExpress International via email.

Photographer Tewfic El-Sawy

Hau dong is part of Vietnam's centuries-old Mother Goddesses worship tradition, but it was banned by the French and later treated as superstition. It still draws public skepticism now even though across the country, many locals continue to turn to the Mother Goddesses and their mediums when they need help, particularly with issues such as fertility, marriage or illness.

Then last December it was officially recognized by UNESCO.

El-Sawy said before this recognition, it was difficult to know where and when ceremonies were to take place.

He owed his opportunity to a few Vietnamese friends who helped him contact mediums, join ceremonies during the years and learn about eclectic mix of fashion, choreography, theatrics and the community bond.

Once an outsider, the American photographer can now understand some spiritual songs of the religion.

El-Sawy has described the publication of his photo book, "Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam," last summer as his "15 minutes of fame." The book, with 100 large pictures and his own introduction, made headlines as culture writers were surprised by El-Sawy's love and respect for the Vietnamese folk religion.

But the book is not his ultimate goal.

The photographer, busy with his other projects, is pushing further for the tradition to be more popular around the world. He is trying to persuade the Asia Society in New York to celebrate Mother Goddesses.

“So far I have failed, but I will keep trying," he said.

Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam - a coffee-table photo book in hard or soft cover format (standard landscape, 10×8 in, 25×20 cm)

Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam is available on Blurb and Amazon. You can see more by visiting his website. Photo courtesy of Tewfic El-Sawy.

Quynh Trang

By Quynh Trang